REVIEW: The Forgiveness of Blood Will Make You Care About Albanian Blood Feuds — Really
Maybe you’re the kind of person who wakes up in the morning and says, “What can I learn today about the psychological effects of blood feuds in contemporary Albania?” But I doubt it. Who even thinks about these things, or cares about them? The strange miracle of Joshua Marston’s modest, well-constructed drama The Forgiveness of Blood — which really is about blood feuds in contemporary Albania — is that once you’ve watched it, you might find that you actually do care. It’s the kind of movie that makes the world feel like a smaller place, suggesting that the similarities connecting us across continents and cultures are more resonant than the things that divide us.
The Forgiveness of Blood is set in northern Albania — it was also filmed there, using local, nonprofessional actors. Eighteen-year-old Nik (Tristan Halilaj) is a senior in high school, with his eye on the prettiest classmate and ambitions to open his own Internet café. But one day his father, Mark (Refet Abazi), becomes involved in a land dispute: Mark makes a living for himself and his family by delivering bread to local homes and businesses — his mode of transport is a horse-drawn cart — and he habitually takes a shortcut across land that used to belong to his grandfather. The current owners take umbrage, and an altercation breaks out in which one of them is stabbed to death; implicated in the murder, Mark immediately goes into hiding. But according to codes of law that have been in place for centuries, the aggrieved family is entitled to take the life of a male from the aggressor’s family. Nik is forced into a kind of house arrest, along with his younger brother and two sisters. But because the female members of the household aren’t in danger, Nik’s younger sister, Rudina (Sindi Laçej), must leave school and temporarily take over her father’s business, just to keep the family afloat.
This is a vivid, tough little story that enfolds lots of dramatic subthreads: Nik and Rudina live, as most of us do, in a world of cell phones and satellite TV, yet they find themselves bound by antiquated rules of conduct. Nik is just learning his way around the adult world — he preens in front of the mirror, Tony Manero-style, hoping to look good for the girl he’s set his sights on — only to be imprisoned at home, as if grounded by an especially strict parent. It’s a particularly painful kind of cultural emasculation, and he lashes out. And Rudina, a bright girl who seems to enjoy school (it’s hinted that she may have a future outside this rather restrictive community), suddenly has to play the role of the male breadwinner. She’d rather go shoe-shopping with her friends, of course, but the point is that her very sex both protects her and makes her life harder: Her life is of lesser value under the arcane rules governing the blood feud, which means that when the males in her family are compromised, she has to step up to the plate and act like a man. She seems to have the worst of both worlds.
Marston’s gift as a filmmaker — he also co-wrote the script with Albanian screenwriter Andamion Murataj — is that he makes us care about these characters without forcing us to eat the knobby, dirt-encrusted root vegetables of cross-cultural awareness. You know what I’m talking about: The world of independent filmmaking is full of movies designed to congratulate well-informed, literate liberals on how well-informed and literate they are — we watch as peasants and otherwise “compromised” people, who live in countries outside North America (or even the poorer communities within it), suffer through their daily lives. Then we’re allowed to pat ourselves on the back for allowing our eyes to be opened to their plight.
Marston doesn’t play that game here, and he didn’t play it in his first feature, Maria Full of Grace, either: That picture told the story of a young Colombian woman who becomes a drug mule to raise money for her family. The picture could have been a pile-up of the most tense horrors imaginable, but Marston has the rare gift of knowing when to ease up on the clutch: He focuses on individuals, on their faces and their feelings, sometimes at the expense of your garden-variety dramatic buildup. His movies have their own kind of narrative intensity, but they’re not thrillers masquerading as human-interest stories. With Marston, the interest is all human.
That’s especially true in The Forgiveness of Blood. In the movie’s early moments, when I saw that horse-drawn bread cart rambling across a scrubby-yet-beautiful semi-rural landscape, I groaned. Was this going to be one of those good-for-you movies that’s pure punishment to watch? The picture does have its unnerving moments, points at which you find yourself inside the head of a particular character and you’re not sure you want to be there. But Marston doesn’t overreach dramatically. Mostly, he simply trusts the faces of his actors: Halilaj’s Nik has a gawky-charming teen-scarecrow look — he’s all long limbs and awkward pauses, particularly when he’s in the presence of that pretty classmate. And even though Rudina isn’t really the movie’s main character, as Laçej plays her, she’s its quiet, somber soul. Rudina observes the proceedings around her with resigned exasperation: Just when her life should be moving forward, it’s being pulled backward through hundreds of years of tradition. That tension is gentle but potent, and it’s what keeps The Forgiveness of Blood coursing along. By the end, you’ll care more about Albanian blood feuds than you ever thought you could.